The Countdown: #4-1

Posted: 06/12/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

And we have finally arrived at the top four, with just a few minutes to spare. Opinions on the teams in the World Cup vary greatly, but the consensus is that Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil should be the top four in some order. Recent injuries to Germany relegate them to fourth, but the top three are grouped pretty close together. Assuming each team wins their group, these four teams are set to be the semifinalists. That’s not to say that I think it’s likely that all four will make the semifinals. I think that’s pretty unlikely, as the second tier of teams ranging from the Ivory Coast and Nigeria all the way up to Belgium are strong enough to defeat any of them on their day. But it’s pretty likely that two or three will make the semifinals, and barring a huge surprise at least one of these four, and maybe two, will make the final. How are the top four ranked? Here we go:

#4 Germany: Germany has always been one (or two) of the best teams in the world. That hasn’t changed, as the Germans have made at least the semifinals three times in a row. In fact, the last time this team lost a game that mattered was at EURO 2012, when they lost to Italy 2-1 despite having 14 corners to the Italians’ zero. They went 9-0-1 in qualification, with an amazing 4-4 tie (the Germans blew a 4-0 lead) against Sweden the only blemish. This is a team that can score goals by the bunches. They tallied 36 in just 10 qualification games, but they also allowed just 10 goals. It can be argued that the Germans were the most impressive team in all of European qualifying, and they haven’t lost a game since. This team is riding a high right now, and would be on par with the top three if not for one important little problem we call injuries. Marco Reus, who suffered an ankle injury, is the most well known of the injured players, but he’s not the only important guy who has been injured. Lars Bender, Mario Gomez, and Ilkay Gundogan, all key parts and possible starters, have each been ruled out, and other key players have just been given a clean bill of health. Germany should be able to withstand all the injuries, though, because they still have a lot of talent. The fact that Mesut Ozil might not start against Portugal says a lot, and this team is filled with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players. Bayern’s Manuel Neuer will start against Portugal, and the fact that he’s healthy is important; Neuer is one of the best in the world. The defense has to be the biggest concern given the offense’s proficiency, but Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels are two of the six or seven best central defenders in the world. That’s hardly an issue. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Sami Khedira should provide structure to the team, and even without Reus, they are hardly short on attacking options. While they lack a clear striker, any combination of Thomas Muller, Ozil, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze, or Lukas Podoloski could start in attack in support of the aging yet still effective Miroslav Klose. This German team has an embarrassment of riches, and is as close to a lock to escape from the group stages as any team. But the injuries have without a doubt hampered this team and lowered their ceiling. A spot in the semifinals is still expected and likely, but I would be surprised to see them get past the final four.

#3 Argentina: Lionel Messi. Sergio Aguero. Gonzalo Higuain. Angel Di Maria. A World Cup played on their home continent. Top spot in qualification (albeit with Brazil resting). How is this team not #1? Well, first of all it’s hard to shake the 4-0 quarterfinals loss to Germany in 2010 from memory. Yes, it was a different coach, and yes, they’re better now, but fair or not, the image of Messi so distraught and helpless has had a lasting effect. In fact, Germany has now knocked Argentina out twice in a row, which makes me wonder why I put the Argentinians over the Germans. Wait a second.. Messi. Aguero. Higuain. Di Maria. That’s why. This team obviously will go as those four, all stars for top teams in top European leagues, go. Messi is, with Cristiano Ronaldo, the co-best player in the world and stars for Barcelona. Aguero is top gun for Premier League champions Manchester City. Higuain scored 24 goals for Napoli, while Di Maria was the best playmaker on Real Madrid. It’s a stacked attack. Unfortunately, the defense is not quite as good, even though they have been getting good results recently. Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta both play for Manchester City and are key defenders, but the other defenders are question marks. They are in an easy group and have the talent to score five goals in every group stage game, but it remains to be seen how Argentina plays against tougher opposition. Expectations are high, and winning it all seems an attainable goal. But a spot in the semis is a near must, and anything less than second place will probably be considered a failure. So just as there are expectations, there is also pressure. It’ll be interesting to see how the stars respond on the biggest stage.

#2 Spain: Do NOT underestimate Spain. That’s basically all I have to say. Their short passes will lull you to sleep, but they will attack at the ideal time. They’ve also won the last three major tournaments, so there’s that. Their defense is the only one that can rival Brazil’s, as I think Sergio Ramos is the best defender in the world, even with his temper and propensity to get red carded. The midfield and attack is also among the best, even though Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Andres Iniesta, the core of the team, are all on the wrong side of 30. That’s the teams only weakness: age. It’s possible that Spain will tire earlier than their competitors will, and that could lead to their downfall. Still, I’d have ranked this team #1 if this tournament were being played anywhere else. It’s not, though, so Spain will have to settle for second. But if the last three major tournaments aren’t enough to teach you, I’ll try now: underestimate Spain at your own risk. Barring a huge upset in the group stages (in a group with Chile and the Netherlands anything is possible), I find it impossible to see Spain bowing out before the quarterfinals. A spot in the semis seems more likely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Spain won it all. People aren’t picking them because they are now the boring pick, but they’re still a great pick to win it. Again, if this tournament were not being played in Brazil, I’d have Spain as the favorite. It is in Brazil, so Spain is second, but I think they’re getting overlooked.

#1 Brazil: The host nation always gets a huge boost, and when the host nation is a team that would be a near-favorite anyway, it’s a lock to be #1. That’s what Brazil is heading into the World Cup. They are a very good team, and the favorite, even though there are holes to be found. The defense is terrific, as it’s led by a bunch of the best defenders in the world: Thiago Silva, who’s second best to Sergio Ramos, Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), and David Luiz (soon to be at PSG). They aren’t going to give up many goals, and their attacking options aren’t too shabby either. Oscar is great at creating chances, and Hulk and Neymar should finish them. Neymar has everything riding on his shoulders, and it’s a lot for a young player to handle, but I think he can and will do it. That, in the end, is one of the many reasons I have Brazil at #1. Another reason is that they haven’t lost a game that matters at home in decades, and a third is that they have lost just one of their last 15, winning most of those by a lot. I could go on and on, but I’m not going to. It’s going to take a herculean effort to defeat Brazil on their home turf, and while a team might have that effort in them, I’d bet against that. That’s why I have Brazil #1, and that’s why I think they’re more likely than anyone else to take the World Cup.

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